I had my first taste of life as a vegetarian in France before I moved here. In 2003, I visited Toulouse with my girlfriend for her cousin’s wedding. On accepting the invite, my girlfriend told her cousin I was a vegetarian, but that I didn’t want to cause a fuss and I was happy to eat whatever meat-free salads or side dishes were on the menu.
The caterer assured the family that they’d prepare a plate for me. On the night, when I was given my main course, among the various légumes, leaves and lentils, I found two different types of fish. So, not wishing to draw any more attention to myself than I already had, I ate around it. I smiled as those at our table nudged each other and gawked at this exotic Irishman and his bizarre eating habits, and I gave the thumbs-up to the father of the bride when he came to enquire that all was good.
I realise now that those fishy goings-on were not born of incompetence or badness, it’s more likely that the caterer had never catered for a vegetarian before and assumed fish was OK. But the incident meant I knew what I was letting myself in for when we moved to France in 2007.
Sure, there were times when being a vegetarian in Ireland wasn’t exactly a piece of carrot cake, but moving to small-town southern France was like a slap in the face with a wet kipper. Given the centrality of food to French culture, being a vegetarian here seemed a bit like being a teetotaler in Ireland – you are immediately at a significant social disadvantage, and many people mark you out as a weirdo.
In Ireland, many people won’t truly accept you until you’ve spent a night skulling pints of stout together; in the same way, I felt many people here didn’t really accept me because they’d never seen me picking gizzards out of my beard after a meal.
On moving here, I knew I’d miss friends and family, but the person I missed most was Linda McCartney. Yes, her hubby Paul did some nice work, but in my book she was the true genius in that family. In Ireland, I’d grown to love her meat-free products but I soon discovered that things like soy mince or veggie burgers were just not sold in French supermarkets.
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More disappointments were in store when we would call up restaurants to book a table, and enquire if there were meat-free options on the menu. The answer was often ‘yes, we have chicken’ or ‘yes, we have shrimp’. The concept of a main course without meat seemed so far out to them, I might as well have been asking for magic mushroom stroganoff. Let’s just say I got to know my local pizzeria owner very well.
In the main, any negatives involved eating outside the home – restaurants, other people’s houses. But there were positives, too. The warm climate here means fruit and vegetables are abundant and delicious – for example, there’s no comparison between the sweet, juicy tomatoes in France and their hard, unripe equivalent in Ireland – and then there’s the cheeses, the breads, the wines…
But anytime I’d eat with people, my vegetarianism, boringly, became the topic of conversation. Many people seemed mildly amused by the fact, and a few seemed outright offended by the entire concept. Vegetarians are used to being mocked, that comes with the territory. But here it was more intense, and came from friends, colleagues, even the odd waiter. In fact, the French have a word for it – végéphobie, meaning fear, hatred or bullying of vegetarians. (Not to be confused with the fear of vegetables, that’s lachanophobia...and a whole other article.)
I can’t say I’ve ever been bullied for being a vegetarian – contrary to popular stereotypes, I am a large man and could potentially beat the gravy out of most people. But on occasion, I wondered whether if I’d been a foot shorter and six stone lighter, my dining companions might have held me down and gavage-fed me foie gras.
However, over the years, things have slowly changed. The concept of vegetarianism doesn’t seem quite so strange to people here anymore. It’s now possible to buy meat-substitute products in all the main supermarkets – the likes of Carrefour, Super U and Leclerc even have own-brand ranges of veggie burgers, nuggets, etc. In our small town, there’s a vegetarian restaurant that opens for lunch, and two others that are vegetarian-friendly. Indeed, in October 2015, the Happy Cow food website listed 1,228 fully vegetarian restaurants across France, whereas today it lists 1,699.
The French are not converting en masse to vegetarianism. According to the Association Végétarienne de France (AVF), the percentage of the French population who don’t eat meat has remained steady at 2-3% over the past five years. (In the UK, it’s estimated at 5.7%.) But in an interview with BFM, AVF president Elodie Vielle-Blanchard explained that now “there is a very, very large section of the population who are ‘flexitarian’, that means they have really reduced their consumption of animals...and 10% say they could see themselves becoming vegetarian”.
She said the reason for this is that previously vegetarianism was seen as austere and moralistic, whereas now it’s seen more and more as a healthy way of life, so much so that it’s actually becoming trendy to be a vegetarian in France.
So, who knows, maybe before long I’ll be able to pop down to my local Casino and pick up my beloved Linda McCartney burgers…